On William T. Vollmann: An Indulgence

[B]lessed is he who is not offended but believes that this occurred, is not offended because it does not now occur but believes that it occurred.

– Kierkegaard, Training in Christianity

I want to send history to the bright fires.

–William T. Vollmann, You Bright and Risen Angels


I don’t know who brought the books into the house — a filthy three-bedroom in Gainesville, Florida that when she first laid eyes on it made my mother cry — but I remember the books themselves. There were several, all paperback, all beat up and well-thumbed: 13 Stories and 13 Epitaphs, Whores for Gloria, maybe The Atlas and definitely The Rainbow Stories, which is what I ended up starting with, probably because I liked the cover, or the thickness of it, or it had been recommended by someone in the know, quite possibly the person who had brought the books over in the first place, though the more I think about it the more inclined I find myself to believe that the books were in the house when we moved into it in the late summer of 2001, so that in terms of our tenure there — Kevin’s, Steve’s, mine, and, variously, Brandon’s, Rick’s, Bill’s, Melinda’s, Dave’s, Kyle and Anna’s, because we had front and back yards convenient for parking a van or pitching a tent, plus of course the living room couches — Vollmann was not brought in but rather was left behind.

(All the names above, for better or worse, have been changed, on the logic that people deserve to be protected, however flimsily, from their own pasts. Other names below have not been changed. It will probably be obvious which are which, but it hardly matters in an case.)

We got the place through Brandon, who ran a group called Student Peace Action even though he wasn’t a student. He was good friends with the previous occupants, a jam band, even though he was technically a punk, though there wasn’t much to his being a punk either since he mostly wore a blue mechanic’s jumpsuit and only really liked listening to heavy metal and old bluegrass. He was an ex-Communist, ex-Confederate Apologist, hardcore alcoholic and true-believing anarchist; Floridian by way of North Carolina; a wonderful impossible creature and one of the better guitarists I have ever known.

This Is Not an Epitaph

Brandon lives in Minnesota now, and though we’ve fallen out of touch I’ve been told through our mutual friends that he is a bike mechanic, has a few bands going, is doing basically okay. I think we’re Facebook friends.

(An Aside

For more about this house and my experience of it, the piqued reader is directed to my novel, The Gospel of Anarchy, which depicts that time and place to the best of my ability and the near-exhaustion of my interest, albeit in a form closer to phantasmagoria than bildungsroman. As William Vollmann has it in his note at the end of The Rainbow Stories: “In my scholarly edition of the Bible are footnotes explaining the Divine in terms of the merely meteorological. But it would seem no less admirable to explain the meteorological in terms of the Divine.” My novel was written in this spirit, though by the time I wrote it I had forgotten this line of Vollmann’s (he had been ejected from my personal canon in 2005, after I froze to death in the middle of an endless Russian passage of Europe Central) and so I never thought to include it as an epigraph. I might have saved myself — and my critics — many headaches had I only recalled it while reviewing page-proofs in 2010.)

The Rainbow Stories

I read The Rainbow Stories and I loved them. Loved their style: the short sections of prose each with its own title, and not infrequently too its own epigraph; the determined but reserved foregrounding of the author as witness and speaking voice and participant; the willingness to risk over-determination and earnestness, as evidenced by the provokingly ham-handed “color scheme” structure of the book (itself inspired by a line of that great ham Edgar Allan Poe’s), the sometimes stultifying repetition of motifs and images. I loved the pure sprawling flab of the collection, of the individual stories, paragraphs and sentences loping blackly across page after page.

The Rainbow Stories (Continued) And Some of What I Learned From Them

I read The Rainbow Stories quickly and I loved it, even the parts of it that I didn’t like very much (such as “The Yellow Sugar” and significant stretches of “The Blue Yonder” and certain parts of “Violet Hair” which, despite Vollmann’s having included a glossary of Heideggarian terminology, remained largely beyond my comprehension) and after I finished it I decided that I would write a book like his, and then I read a lot more of his books — You Bright and Risen Angels, The Ice-Shirt, Fathers & Crows, and The Atlas — over the next few months. At some point I read The Rainbow Stories again. After that the pace slowed, though I eventually got around to 13 Stories and Butterfly Stories and Whores for Gloria and The Rifles, which, if memory serves, was the first of his books that I started but didn’t finish.

Vollmann not only expanded my horizon of what literature was or could be, but he showed me a new way that I myself could write it. A literature that was radically inclusive but also unapologetically intellectual (the unparsable Heidegger, after all, was pressed into the service of a love story); that one need not accept the division of literature into binary categories like “realist/nonrealist” or “traditional/experimental” or even “fiction/nonfiction”; that literature is not a two-party system in which you must make the least bad choice. (In 2000, eighteen years old, I voted for Nader.) Vollmann was not squeamish about dereliction, or about anything, really, and his unassailable calm was itself a kind of revelation. Though I should say nearly unassailable for in “Ladies and Red Lights” it is written: “As for the other pimp, he cocked his finger. When the policewoman patted him down, he spread his arms, like a stylish bird wondering whether or not to fly. — ‘I got kids, too,’he said. — That was too much for me. When he said that, I hated him.”

Vollmann showed me that I could write about the gritty and the dirty and the weird and the awful but also about the regular, the everyday: the world I saw in front of me, and whatever I was willing to seek out. (“The White Knights”, still my favorite Rainbowstory, appears to be straight reportage, and concludes with the S.F. Skinz gang reacting — poorly — to a draft of the piece he’s written about them.)

Of course Vollmann did not invent or discover these concerns; neither were his methods of addressing them wholly original or unique. He was only the first writer to bring these issues to my attention in a way that resonated and seemed to be irresistible; ergo, he invented them for me.

Historicism (Continued)

I had tried — was at that time still trying — to learn a lot of these same lessons from the Beats, but Vollmann — another San Franciscan, for whatever that’s worth to you — became my teacher in a way that Kerouac et al. didn’t, couldn’t. It might even be true that I had picked up Vollmann myself, unencouraged, for no better reason than that a jacket blurb compared him to Burroughs at a time when I was still trying to force myself to be a Burroughs guy. But it also might have been Bill, another homeless alcoholic who lived with us sometimes — he slept on the couch but he pissed himself at night, so we kicked him out, but if we didn’t lock all the doors and windows he’d sneak back in after we went to sleep. He was a kind and intelligent and gentle man, an ex-Mormon with long tangled leonine hair and beard and the sweetest pale eyes, usually wearing a too-small tee shirt and flip-flops and a pair of men’s bathing trunks (easier to hand-wash after he pissed himself); he’d go to the grocery store about 11 AM and steal a case of beer and spend the rest of the day drinking it while reading Kierkegaard; I remember him imploring me to tackle Either/Or, and how I never did, though years later when I was writing my Gospel I became obsessed with Fear and Trembling and Training In Christianity, and thought of Bill often, and he is represented in the novel by the novel’s own treatment of Kierkegaard as its Holy Spirit, so to speak. And so it might have been Bill who championed Vollmann, though again it might have been Rick, who loved freight trains.

It might be that Vollmann showed me what the Beats couldn’t because the life I was living then looked more like Vollmann’s than like Kerouac’s et al. (The previous sentence is an extraordinary overstatement, and indulges a relativism that verges on the outright disingenuous, but there is a kernel of emotional truth there, and in any case I’ve happily impeached myself, so I beg you allow me this indulgence and let us move on.) Like Vollmann, I stood on the fringes of a lot of things. I glimpsed strange sad and profound lives and worlds. I spent time with people whose choices I could neither fathom nor endorse, but by and large held my tongue or else encouraged them, and broke bread and raised glasses with them and they were my friends. I got talked into doing things I shouldn’t or wouldn’t have done and saw things I couldn’t have ever otherwise seen. On the strength of loving The Rainbow Stories I wrote a bad college book that was naive and callow and wanted to be about Everything Important In The World, etc.; a book I was probably bound to write with or without Vollmann, but because I wrote it with him (in his spirit, practically in his name) I cannot think of it simply as my bad college book but must consider it with particular reference to him. The form the book took was a novel about four short-story writers who were all friends (and they were based, pace Vollmann, on my friends, though my friends were mostly poets, and also I didn’t understand then that not everyone to whom Vollmann was friendly was actually his friend). The fictional fiction-writers’fictions were also included, so within the frame of the novel was an entire collection of short stories in a variety of styles, for Vollmann had showed me that sprawl itself was form and he gifted me with the fact of his own audacity at having written the books he had, the wild size and scope and number of them, and so I was diligent and wild and ate handfuls of ephedrine capsules (which in that innocent era were still legal, you bought them at the gas station) and banged away at my computer keyboard (thinking no doubt of the narrator of You Bright And Risen Angels who hides beneath his desk at work to use the computer to write at night after the bosses go home, though I myself was sitting drunk and alert in my own bedroom, and owned my computer, and had no boss) and produced this stillborn book which, to my credit, I knew almost immediately for what it was and so the only two people who ever saw it were my independent study advisor (who I doubt got halfway through it, though she gallantly awarded me three course credits for the exertion) and my friend Friedel (who I’m sure read with bottomless sympathy and reported back kind words that I’ve long since forgotten or blocked) and I never tried to write another novel like William Vollmann again, though I did imitate his voice once for an essay I wrote for the literary magazine Rain Taxi, which is the same trick I’m pulling here — obviously — which is perhaps my way of admitting that all attempts to historicize my interest and affection notwithstanding, the man can still get deep under my skin.

Two Bits of Trivia in Partial Illustration of the Previous Point

My public email address, to this day, is a phrase drawn from a line in You Bright and Risen Angels: “I want to send history to the bright fires”, though of course this is a question of convenience as much as anything else. Also, there is a character in my novel named Parker — a revered but absent figure, who some of the other characters come to worship as an anarchist messiah — named not, as some have guessed, for the protagonist of Flannery O’Connor’s “Parker’s Back” (sublime and pitiless masterpiece though it is) but rather for the failed revolutionary in You Bright And Risen Angels, who is turned into a terrorist by traumatic experiences at summer camp, and dies when his heart is eaten by a giant bug.

(Another Aside

You might say that, for me, Vollmann played a role in my reading and writing life not unlike the roles that Thomas Pynchon and/or David Foster Wallace seem to have played for so many of my elders and peers. But I have never been able to care much for either of those men and their bodies of work — I must be missing a chromosome, and as a result surely suffer from an undiagnosed literary-affective disorder — and so have had to make due as best I could. I think I came out all right, over all, though it must be admitted that “WTV” does not roll off the tongue quite the same way that “DFW” does, to say nothing of the tight grace of “Pynchon”, so close acoustically to “Dylan,” and so often inflected in just the same reverential way.)

Some Literary Criticism

Where does Vollmann stand in my estimation now? That’s hard to say. As mentioned above, I basically quit after Europe Central. I think it’s swell that he writes about social justice issues, has apparently fashioned himself a latter-day Steinbeck or whatever. I like his Harper’s pieces but I can’t imagine buying one of his new books, or re-reading one of the old ones, however much I may have loved it the first time around, and you can hear the Vollmann-voice-imitation draining out of my prose as I pull myself out of my reverie. It sounds, rightly or wrongly, like listening to myself get old.

Other Things I’ve Been in Love With

I was a Lish-school devotee for a few years there; went through a whole Dickens thing. Don DeLillo, Cormac McCarthy, Jane Austen, Richard Brautigan, Marilynne Robinson, Harold Bloom. Kierkegaard, as I mentioned, and G.K. Chesterton, if you can believe it. Right now it’s the Romantic poets. I read with obsession and promiscuity: full of love and prone to fits.

But yesterday I went to the library at the Pratt Institute, where I teach, with a mind to go back to square one with William Vollmann. I set out, in short, to do the thing I described as “unimaginable” a paragraph above.

Market Forces

The house I live in now (an apartment in Brooklyn, NY) doesn’t have a single book of Vollmann’s in it so I meant to check out The Rainbow Stories and spend some time with it and then write this piece. Unfortunately, the Pratt library’s copy is MISSING and has been for some time. But luckily for me — if you can call it luck, and I suppose I will — the convergent realities of the housing and academic job markets in New York City necessitate my teaching as an adjunct at three different universities simultaneously, and since on this particular day of the week I had to go straight from my literature seminar at Pratt to my fiction workshop at N.Y.U., I was able to visit the Bobst library on West 4th street and they had a copy of The Rainbow Stories, which I checked out. Owing to relatively low demand for this title and my status as “faculty”, it was determined that I could borrow the book for five months.

A new paperback copy of The Rainbow Stories retails for $22.

Some Reunions

This morning I sat at my kitchen table and read the “Preface” and the first two stories (including “The White Knights”) and the “Note on the Truth of the Tales” at the very back, where I found the sentences about divine meteorology quoted above. Then most of my afternoon was taken up by a reunion with a friend from childhood. David and I have known each other since elementary school, were inseparable throughout high school, years when he had an old red SUV and I, like Vollmann, was unlicensed, a shotgun seat fixture (though Vollmann, for his part, is wall-eyed, nearly blind, whereas yours truly was merely indolent). These were the years we revered Hunter S. Thompson, and also when my Burroughs thing got going. David loved Thompson and Bukowski but didn’t have the stomach for Naked Lunch or The Soft Machine: all those murdered boys with their spurting cocks and the sentences hacked to ribbons; Fuck this bro, he said, and put the book down and picked up his bass guitar. Maybe if I had known how to play bass guitar or drive a car I wouldn’t have tried so hard to make Burroughs work for me. Anyway, David has become a professional photographer and I needed a new author photo and he was in town for our friends Ari and Alex’s wedding (high school sweethearts, though they went to the other high school) so he came over and we climbed out my window onto the roof of the laundromat I live above and for an hour and a half he took pictures of me wearing various dress shirts and at one point he looked up from his tripod and said, “Man it’s weird when you’ve known someone a long time but you only see them like once a year or less and you see how their face has changed,” and I wanted to know what he meant by this exactly, since he had by this time been staring at my face for forty-five minutes and would continue to stare at it for as long again while he took probably two hundred photographs (glasses on, glasses off; right profile, left profile; in front of the bricks, in front of the tree) but he declined to elaborate on his comment other than to say, “I didn’t mean just you, it’s like that with everybody.” When we finished we walked down the street to a new restaurant he’d heard about from his little brother Danny (who lives on an island off the southern coast of Japan, but keeps up with the New York restaurant scene, somehow) but the place wasn’t open yet so we went and got ramen instead.

And all this made me think about Vollmann too, not just because of the photographer, Ken, who appears at the end of “The White Knights”, but because Vollmann himself has one of the great weird author photos that I know of: the early one (in fact it may be archival, i.e. a picture of himself as an adolescent, not “current” even when he was using it, but who knows?) where he’s sitting on the floor in front of a brown couch looking right at the camera through coke-bottle-lensed grandma glasses (the kind that are tre chic now among the hipster set, or were three years ago, but this picture was taken in ’70- or ’80-something) and his head’s cocked to the side and you can see some acne on his cheeks and he’s got what looks like a home-made haircut and is frowning and holding a pistol up to his right temple, wearing a collared beige shirt. I have never forgotten that photograph since the first time I saw it. I did not want a photograph anything like it.

(What I wanted was something either like the one of Jonathan Franzen where he’s holding the tripod and has binoculars around his neck on the jacket of Farther Away, or else that one of Denis Johnson where he’s grinning widely, maybe laughing, and you look at it and simply cannot believe that this is the guy responsible for the hard miracle that is Jesus’ Son. But my publisher didn’t want a photograph like the Franzen one, and I didn’t think I could pull off the Johnson one, and so we climbed out on the roof.)

After David left I read “Red Hands” and most of “Ladies and Red Lights” (with its Thomas Hobbes epigraph and expense-account footnotes) — then my girlfriend got home and because she had worked late I stopped what I was doing to cook her dinner, or, really, to warm up leftovers of the dinner she had made for me two nights before — but in any case I did it, while she flipped through a magazine and took off her shoes.

Something Occurs to Me

Later that night as we were settling into bed I realized that I had read over 100 pages of The Rainbow Stories in two days. Hardly the breakneck pace I’d kept in college, when I probably could have (or would have, or did) read all 543 pages in roughly the same span, but I had a lot more free time on my hands in those days, and the ephedrine capsules besides. My point is that 100 pages of Vollmann — of anything — in two days felt like a real achievement: mine, but also his.

Reading Like A Writer

I read differently now than I did when I was eighteen, nineteen. For one thing, I think I can say without unbecoming pride or ostentation that I am sufficiently established in my own career — as both a writer and a teacher of writing — that I no longer read published books with a superlative interest in figuring out how they got that way. (Though occasionally one cannot help but find oneself nonplussed.) I am still as likely as anyone (more likely than some) to be surprised, influenced, inspired, affected, changed by the books I read, but at this point I feel that my strongest influence is my own body of work: I begin a line of inquiry in one story or book and search for a way to extend or complicate it in the next, or, having written a story or book preoccupied with certain subjects, I vow not to let the next story or book become an exercise in repetition, however dear those subjects may still be to me. (But it must be said, again by way of self-impeachment, that these lines I write avowing a diminished susceptibility to influence are largely a paraphrase of remarks made by Jonathan Franzen in the essay collection whose jacket photograph I so admired.) Also, I’m older, and have a diminished susceptibility to revelation in general. More’s the pity, perhaps; but then again.

Some Reunions (Continued)

All of this is a prelude to discussing the one thing that truly did — does — surprise me about my reunion with The Rainbow Stories, and that thing is Vollmann’s extraordinary, indeed exquisite, sense of control. What I as a young enthusiast took for pell-mell freedom and chaos is in fact the result of careful orchestration and staging, within individual stories and in terms of the collection as a whole. This doesn’t mean the work is without its excesses — or that it doesn’t, at times, scan to me as self-indulgent, repetitive, inscrutable, etc. — but if you had asked me, before I revisited this book, why I no longer read Vollmann, I would have phrased my answer in terms of losing my tolerance for a certain kind of sloppiness; but now, having had my reunion, I must say that my complaints about Vollmann are not to be phrased in terms of his qualities as a writer but rather in terms of my taste as a reader. As chroniclers of the damned and damaged world go, I unreservedly prefer the Denis Johnson of not only Jesus’ Son but Fiskadoro and Resuscitation of a Hanged Man and all the poems and Soul of a Whore. The Dennis Cooper of Try and Guide. DeLillo’s Mao II and The Names and Point Omega and James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time and Going To Meet the Man and Joshua Cohen’s Witz and A Heaven of Others and most of Mary Gaitskill and Tao Lin and Barry Hannah and about half of Amy Hempel and all of David Gates and Donald Antrim and Virginia Woolf in The Waves and To The Lighthouse and (a bit grudgingly) Mrs Dalloway, and all the names I mentioned earlier, and other names you can probably infer based on these names, plus a few you wouldn’t ever guess, which is okay too, to have some secrets. It may be that William Vollmann is one of mine.

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